It was just a little over 10 months ago that Neil Pionk’s life was turned upside down. On June 18, 2019, Pionk was traded by the New York Rangers, along with the twentieth overall pick in the 2019 entry draft, to the Winnipeg Jets for pending restricted free agent Jacob Trouba.
Time will tell how that trade will pan out for both teams, because just one month and a day after the trade, Trouba was signed to a seven-year, USD$56-million contract, while the Jets used the first round pick to select defenceman Ville Heinola.
But based on the first year, it’s safe to say the transaction could not have worked out any better for the Jets, or for Pionk, who quickly quieted the naysayers by stepping right into a top-four role on the Winnipeg blue line, while also assuming the responsibility of the Jets power play.
The 24-year-old from Hermantown, Minn., agrees that the first 10 months of being a Jet have been good ones.
“Obviously when the trade first went down I wasn’t pleased, and I don’t think anybody would be,” said Pionk during a video conference call Thursday from his summer home in Duluth.
“But I always tell people, within 24 hours I was cool with it and I’d turned the page and moved forward. And now I couldn’t be happier to be in Winnipeg.”
Pionk has been isolating during the coronavirus pandemic with his girlfriend Kiera and his younger brother Joe, who was nearing the end of his second year as the equipment manager with the USHL’s Omaha Lancers. According to Pionk, Joe preferred the idea of waiting out the pandemic in Duluth rather than with Mom and Dad in Hermantown. Even if it means being put to work on some projects. “I don’t know much Joe’s done,” was Neil’s response when asked how the “to do list” has been coming along. “There’s a barn being built — I’m certainly not building a barn. But that’s something I wanted to get done,” said Pionk who says the downtime has allowed for taking care of the “little things” like trimming down trees on the lakeside of the property and blowing leaves that have collected over the winter.
But there’s no doubt that after six weeks of not playing, practicing, or skating of any kind, Pionk is getting as anxious as the rest of his teammates and every other NHLer.
“Usually after every season I’ll take six to eight weeks off without touching my skates,” said the former UMD Bulldog. “My usual regimen after the season is I take two weeks off, and then I start working out again. We’re creeping up to that six to eight week mark. It’ll be a little weird if it keeps going.”
No one has the answer to that $64-million question. And Pionk is aware of some of the moving parts that are being discussed on a daily basis far up the NHL food chain, such as identifying potential centralized hubs for each Division. In the Jets case, if reports from Sportsnet and ESPN are accurate, that would be the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, Minnesota. “Minneapolis would work pretty good for me — it’s only 3-and-a-half hours south, so I’m in favour of that,” said Pionk.
“If it works out, and obviously safety is the first priority — that and the public is healthy — I’d be in favour of playing in a centralized location without fans.”
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By totaling 25 of his 45 points on the Jets powerplay, the former Ranger has certainly added to his fan base in Winnipeg. “The biggest challenge is to put it on Blake Wheeler’s forehand,” Pionk joked. But in a more serious vein, he shared what some of the early adjustments did include in handling point duties — such as figuring out when and where his talented teammates wanted the puck as well as reading tendencies.
“We have one of the best passers in the league in Wheels, and Scheif even too. Obviously one of the best shooters in the NHL in Patty Laine. You gotta get those guys the puck.”
Kyle Connor in front of the net is not too shabby either. And it’s that No. 1 power play unit, along with the rest of his teammates, not to mention the coaching staff, who laid the groundwork for Pionk to gain some early confidence in his new surroundings. “You make a good play and your teammates capitalize on it — that makes everybody look good,” said Pionk. “Same thing when I make a mistake, those guys were there to bail me out. All that led to myself having more confidence, and overall having a pretty good year.”
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And now Neil Pionk wants to pay it forward with a fellow Hermantown product Dylan Samberg, who signed with the Jets back on April 7. “I’m really pumped for him. I’ve know him my whole life,” said Pionk who figures at least a couple of his younger brothers played with Samberg, who is 21.
“So I remember watching him. And then just his whole journey. From Hermantown, playing a little bit of junior, and then going to Duluth and having all that success (two National titles) he had at UMD. And then signing his first pro contract. It’s pretty cool.”
Pionk says he shared a few texts with his future teammate, but left experiencing “the process” to Samberg, his agent, and his parents. “I just gave him a helping hand, just like the older guys in New York and even Winnipeg did for me. Basically if you need anything around the city, or need some advice as far as lifestyle in Winnipeg, just shoot me a text. I’m sure once everything gets back to normal, we’ll be working out and training and the conversation will continue.”
Pionk certainly had the chance to experience his own “journey,” which began with going undrafted and feeding off that motivation to get to where he is now. “I think it definitely gave me a chip on my shoulder. There might be some people who say it gave me too much of a chip because I definitely used that as a driving force for me going on to Junior Hockey. I was always looking to prove myself, and to prove to people that I can play in college – and that I can play in pro, and in the NHL.”
Pionk played for two plus seasons with Sioux City of the USHL before making the next step to Minnesota-Duluth, which he describes as the best two years of his life. “Just the camaraderie that you have with your college teammates,” recalled Pionk who shared a house with five other fellow Bulldogs in Duluth. “You’re in class together from 9 a.m. till noon, and then you’re practicing together. And then you might have a night class from 5-6 p.m.”
Not being drafted actually benefited Pionk big time, because it allowed him to become a free agent following his sophomore season. “I don’t think there’s not a lot of guys who get to experience full blown free agency, and I was able to do that,” said Pionk. “It was a fun process. A little stressful at times.”
It’s interesting to hear Neil Pionk even suggest that, because he has exhibited such a cool and calm exterior in his first, and best season as a pro to date. And already he has experienced a moment that will be tough to top. “It had to be the comeback win when we were down 4-0 in New Jersey, and came back to win in a shootout,” Pionk responded when asked what his favourite memory of the 2019-20 season was. “I remember texting my parents after the game, saying that’s the most fun I’ve had playing hockey in a long time. There’s no way I’ll ever forget that one.”